Nat Hentoff: Is Jazz Black Music?

I have been meaning to write a tribute to the late journalist Nat Hentoff, who died last month at the age of 91, and am finally getting around to it now. I first encountered him through his writing on jazz, which was foundational for me when I was young and learning about that great art form. In the 80s and 90s I would read his columns at the Village Voice, which focused mainly on free speech issues. (I should add that the Village Voice as a whole contributed greatly to my cultural and intellectual education. We don't just learn in school!) Finally, in the 2000s I would read his column in Jazz Times magazine. I guess you would say that his love for jazz was strong and deep but never sentimental.

In 2008 he contributed an essay to Jazz Times that I keep returning to, as it poses the eternal question: "Is Jazz Black Music?" Short answer: Yes. But that's not to say that white people haven't been and are not today integral to the music. Reflecting on his participation in a panel discussion held at Lincoln Center, Hentoff distinguishes between originators, originals, and influencers, which is a pretty good, if imperfect, way of thinking about it. Let's quote at length to capture some of the nuance Hentoff brings to the topic:
My partial list of originators-and I’m sure you have yours-includes Louis Armstrong, Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Lester Young. All were black, and some were influenced by non-blacks.

Lester Young told me that Frank Trumbauer, mainly known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke, “was my idol. When I started to play, I bought all his records and I imagine I can still play those solos. I tried to get the sound of the C-melody saxophone on the tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story.” But Trumbauer, though an original, didn’t affect, as Prez did, the stories of countless jazz musicians around the world.

The moderator that night at Lincoln Center was historian and jazz professor Lewis Porter. He made the salient point that although the roots of the originators were black, they had big ears and were open to an infinite diversity of influences. As Charles Hersch notes in his important new book, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press), the jazz culture there “included [transmutations of] quadrilles, mazurkas and schottisches.”

On the panel, I mentioned that world-traveler Duke Ellington absorbed into his music the colors, dynamics and stories of the regional and national sounds he heard.
Porter emphasized, “It’s typical of African-American music that jazz players are open to influences.” Eric Dolphy told me how hearing birds singing became part of his music. But again, the roots are black. Or, as Porter put it, being that open “doesn’t make it non-black.”

That’s true of both originators and originals. A necessarily partial list of the originals who are influential but didn’t profoundly change the course of jazz would encompass such non-black players as Bix Beiderbecke (at whom Louis Armstrong marveled during Chicago after-hours sessions), Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Phil Woods and bandleader Woody Herman.
I would add, among many others, white players such as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheney, and Joe Lovano. Some examples: Lovano can't be said to have originated any paradigm shifts in the music, but he is a spectacular musician who has been very adventurous in expanding the settings in which jazz playing can be expressed. The accusation is frequently hurled at Baker that he was just a Miles Davis imitator who became successful watering down Miles' sound for white people. Aside from the fact that they both brought an introspective approach to their playing, Baker doesn't actually sound like Miles at all, and his sense of melody was all his own. Right now, jazz flourishes in Europe, with scores of white musicians performing very creative music that doesn't sound black in an any significant way, which is good, I think. But the fact remains that they wouldn't be playing jazz at all if it weren't for the black originators of the music.


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